In May of 1998 I boarded a plane for just the second time in my life, a non-stop flight from Pittsburgh to Denver. I packed a pair of suitcases and my guitar, off to spend the summer working in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Despite growing up in Western Pennsylvania and having never been West of the Mississippi, I was obsessed with going to Colorado and living in the “real” mountains.
In Pennsylvania we said we have mountains, but that's pretty generous.
For the most part, we have hills.
I spent a few days in Estes Park, which sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains (and is home to scenes from Dumb and Dumber) before making my first trek into the park. I remember having to put my face face on the dashboard of the car just to see the snow covered peaks as we wove our way up Trail Ridge Road.
I was lost for words trying to take in the beauty.
Over the course of that summer I hiked close to 300 miles of trails in the park, taking each day off from my work at Trail Ridge Store to pick a new hike.
It wasn’t until I hiked the mountains of Colorado that I discovered and understood the beauty of the switchback trails.
A switchback, if you’re not familiar, is described as an 180 degree bend in a road or path, especially one leading up the side of the mountain. Rather than hiking straight up the side of a mountain, you zig zag your way up however many miles of trails until you get above tree line and to the summit.
I thought of switchbacks a few weeks ago when a client came in after a very busy, packed weekend filled with tons of physical activity. The more she described her weekend activities the more I was re-thinking the best workout for her that day.
“Oh no,” she said, reading my thoughts. “That doesn’t mean I want you to take it easy on me!”
We haggled back and forth for a bit before meeting in the middle with some active recovery work added at the end of her workout.
Sometimes we equate hard core suffering with work. We feel that we're only getting results if we're nose down in the turf, sucking wind and drowning in a pool of sweat.
The path to getting results isn't always charging straight up the North Face of a steep mountain. Sure that's one way to do it, but the chances of losing a step and falling backwards increase dramatically when you take that approach.
You can still get to the top of the mountain using the switchbacks, and hopefully not rolling 200 feet down the mountain when you miss a step.
I don't recall which hike this was, but once we got above tree-line, the switchbacks ended and we were walking straight up the side of the mountain. Also this was before digital cameras. No need for an instagram filter here...
(As a side thought, aren’t you impressed with anyone who has reached the summit on Mount Everest? Or are you only impressed if they did so without oxygen? Sure doing it with no oxygen is much harder, but I would argue that both are impressive.)
Switchbacks don’t mean that you don’t do the work. They just make the journey more accessible and manageable. Hiking eight miles of trail, switchbacks and all, is plenty of work. But they allow you, hopefully, to slow down every few bends, stop and look around and enjoy the view. And then, after a short rest and a long drink of water, you tighten your backpack and tackle the next part of the trail.
I hope you're stopping every now and then to appreciate where you are at on your journey. That you can see the good views and truly absorb what you are doing well.
I know what it feels like to want to make yourself suffer. To punish yourself with a workout because of the self-loathing you feel for yourself. To feel like you're an awful person and that beating the hell out of yourself is justice for everything you hate yourself for.
You don't have to make everything you do as hard as possible.
I'm not saying you don't have to work hard. This journey can and will be difficult.
I'm just saying you don't have to climb Mount Everest without oxygen.
Or a sherpa :-)